A word that spun freely around the Irish camp back in November for Joe Schmidt’s first block of games in charge, but the Kiwi insists it didn’t colour his thinking for tomorrow’s clash with Scotland.
This, he said, was about hitting the ground at pace even if his track record late last year and the arrival to Dublin of Wales six days after this opener would suggest some changes are all but inevitable next week.
“We can’t afford to lose our first game,” he explained. “It’s pivotal to get a good start. It’s a competition of five games but it’s five finals and that makes it slightly different to the autumn, where we did feel we had to have a look at a few guys, whereas Six Nations is the major tournament we play.”
Twelve of the men who started against New Zealand in November have been retained but if this was a side chosen on form, one where recent provincial displays held more significance than that near-miss three months ago. Three provinces may have forced the breach between the Heineken Cup pool stages and the quarter-finals but Ulster have profited most on an individual level, five close calls going their way.
The inclusion of Luke Marshall and Andrew Trimble at the expense of Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden stand out but Schmidt name-checked fitness as the key factors in both instances.
“Gordon’s stomach bug was the sole selection criteria, really,” Schmidt said. “Luke Marshall has played really well in the Heineken Cup in big games.
“He played in the Six Nations last year and played very well against Scotland.
“I thought he played well against Australia in the autumn too. He made a defensive error at one stage, but is learning all the time.
“He’s between Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, so either side of him he has players who can help him navigate through the game.”
The coach added that this was one either-or that would continue to provide him with headaches and it should be remembered D’Arcy returned for the All Blacks after Marshall took the anthems against Australia.
Trimble’s elevation is the most notable given he wasn’t used in November but has profited from the injuries to Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald (who may return for Wales), Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo.
Fergus McFadden, tipped to wear that number 14 shirt, starts on one wing having managed only a single game since his own return from casualty with Dave Kearney making his tournament debut on the far side.
The other Ulster men to see their stock rise include Chris Henry who, as was anticipated, fills the Sean O’Brien-shaped hole in the back row ahead of Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell.
Dan Tuohy provides cover for the second row starters rather than club mate Iain Henderson while McFadden’s utility has allowed Schmidt pick Paddy Jackson as cover at 10 ahead of the versatile Ian Madigan. The side boasts 625 caps and is balanced by experience and freshness, with O’Driscoll making an Irish record 129th appearance at one end and Martin Moore — who may make his full debut off the bench — at the other.
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